Gaming, home tech, politics, music, whatever really

Author: Hedders (Page 1 of 7)

Flabbergasted

I get that symphonic metal isn’t to everyone’s taste. But you need to stop what you’re doing and watch this:

I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a better singer, in any genre. The extraordinary vocal prowess. The sheer stage presence. I don’t mind saying that I’ve become mildly obsessed with this band as a result of watching this.

TZXDuino

One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.

I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.

First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.

Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.

Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:

The TXZDuino, complete with nifty 3D printed case

It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.

And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.

For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!

The Next is here!

My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.

The hardware

It’s a well-made, solid and stylish machine

The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.

The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.

A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.

Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.

The manual

Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.

The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.

Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.

Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.

Software

Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.

The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.

I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.

Pratdog

I love my little dog very, very much. He’s friendly and fluffy and he likes nothing better than cuddling up on the sofa.

But then there’s stuff like this:

Basically he’s a rescue, we got him as an adult, and he’s not at all food-motivated, so training recall into him is almost a complete non-starter. Spot the moment when we ran into the herd of deer.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

My daft old country is leaving the EU in just over an hour’s time. Nobody really seems to be able to explain why, or what doing so is supposed to achieve.

I’m furious, obviously. Being European is my birthright, and that of my children, and it has been taken away by a bunch of grotty little spivs with a few slogans, a lot of Jingoism and not much else.

History will judge the cretins who voted for this. They have done enormous, and possibly irreparable, harm.

We’re supposed to “get over it”, apparently. I will not. Every single person who campaigned for Brexit, and every single person who voted for Brexit, is culpable. They have harmed me and mine, and they take pride in it. I see no reason why they should be forgiven.

Running my own email server in 2019

When I get drunk, I have a habit of doing very silly or ill-advised things. So it was that I came home from my office party half-cut, and decided to get my own email server.

Now, I’m not starting from zero here. Before I was a lawyer I was an IT guy. I know how email works. But I’ve not actually run a mail server for the thick end of 15 years. I suspected things might have changed a bit.

Boy, have they changed. In my day, you pretty much set up the MX and PTR records, spun up your MTA, opened up port 25 and went about your day.

These days? It’s all about getting receiving servers to trust your domain and your box. I’ve had to learn about SPF, DKIM and DMARC. I’ve had to set special DNS records so that GMail will accept my messages. I’ve had to carefully and deliberately get my IP and domains off blacklists, and keep them that way. It’s been a real adventure.

Fortunately, the actual business of installing a mail server has got wildly easier over the intervening decades, thanks to the miracle of docker and a wonderful project called Mailcow. Once I had my DNS set up right, installing Mailcow was literally about 4 commands. For that, I get mail, calendar, contacts, easy domain routing, activesync, rspamd, clamav … the works.

I’m not using a residential IP, of course. I’ve spun up a Digital Ocean droplet to run all this. And slowly, I’m getting trusted by other servers.

It’s interesting to be learning again.

Shenmue 3

Shenmue 3 – image from official website, belongs to YS Net

Know what this game reminds me of? “Second Coming” by The Stone Roses. You wait ages for it to drop, and then … it’s good, it really is, but it also sort of struggles under its own weight.

For one thing, Yu Suzuki has almost wilfully ignored everything that has happened in the last 20 years of game development. Shenmue 3 is a Shenmue game, which means that it is completely a noughties game. The controls are deeply weird, the pacing is slow, the dialog stilted. It’s … Shenmue, basically. It’s like GTA, The Witcher and Red Dead never happened.

Visually, it is very very lovely. What Yu Suzuki and team have captured, magnificently, is a sort of idealised pastoral of rural China in the 80s, with saturated colours and glow turned up to max. It has a sort of dream-like quality. Combine that with the music, which is as sweeping and beautiful as ever, and you have a game which – while painfully slow at times – is never less than epic.

Does it still stand up as a game in 2019? Hmm. Not really, if I’m honest. I mean, I’m a total Sega fanboy, and I played and loved the first two Shenmue games on the Dreamcast. But you can’t pretend that the last two decades haven’t happened, and Shenmue 3 just doesn’t have the “wow” factor that it had back in 1999, and which made us overlook so much of the clunkiness in the game mechanics.

Still, for all that, it’s undeniably good to hang out with Ryo Hazuki again. Now, does anyone know where I can find sailors?

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